Oscar Wilde talks of the two tragedies of life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Do you know what you want? You feel quite sure that you want the sporty BMW you salivated over last week when you colleague drove over in it. Or the house six streets down that stands out like a special gem among the decent houses in a decent neighborhood. You feel certain that you want these things and they can add a lot to the quality of your life.
But think for a second about the two-story house you live in now that you craved for when you were living in a starter house some years ago. Or the Volvo you drive these days, which roared in your dreams for some years when you were going about in the used Fiat you had bought from your cousin. They seemed the end-point of your dreams, object of irresistible yearning, that would keep you content for the rest of your life. But they didn’t.
For most people, nothing ever does. The Volvo or two-story house, for which you would have given an arm or a leg, and which excited you when you first had them, has long ceased to be a source for excitement or even a cause of moderate satisfaction. What went wrong? Was there something wrong with the car or the house? Had you miscalculated that those things had qualities to please you?
Perhaps there were a few things not superlative with the house, an old-fashioned bathroom and a somewhat modest kitchen. Maybe the car did not have built-in GPS or a high-quality stereo output? Were these the reasons for your steady disenchantment? You know well that is not so.
Your tastes or standards were different. Whatever you fancied then would have faded by now. They would have dropped eventually in your esteem no matter what you had chosen. House styles change, car fashions ebb and flow, what is a model today becomes modal and common tomorrow. It did not matter what you chose. What mattered was that you had chosen it yesteryear, and now it is another time.
I am not so sure. The ardently pious seem to lose their faith as often as the skeptics take to religion. Heaven knows what stirs their doubts or devotion. Professors and scholars have been known to lose their interest in the life theoretic and give up on books and research. They take to pleasures of the flesh or of the bottle or move to Wall Street or Fleet Street.
The truth is we change. What we want, eagerly and earnestly, changes. We may be disappointed, even mortified, when we don’t get what we want. In the vast majority of cases, we overcome our disappointment and find joy in something else. For some, however, the loss may be more traumatic and may merit the name of tragedy.
On the other hand, we may be ecstatic to get what we want. In time, often too soon, the ecstasy fades. There is sometimes the painful realization that that is not something we really wanted or cared for. For the fortunate there is the prospect of further change. For the less fortunate, there may be the prospect of living in an unhappy acceptance of the unacceptable.
Are the twin tragedies Wilde mentioned then quite inevitable? Wilde’s neat trick was to call them tragedies. It is no tragedy that I no longer wear the swaddling clothes I was wrapped in as a baby. Nor the corduroys and pointed shoes that were the style when I was a student. I have just grown and changed. On the way I have learned a few things and become perhaps a little better. What I have shed, my clothes or my earlier selves, I have done to aspire for some small measure of excellence. Hardly a tragedy.